Cathay Pacific First Class is one of my favourite ways to cross the Pacific, so Jessy and I were naturally delighted to be kicking off our luxury-laden Maldives trip with a 16-hour ride onboard Cathay First.
Having flown this product twice before, this would be my first time trying out Cathay Pacific’s refreshed First Class soft product, which the Hong Kong-based airline unveiled in late 2019. Prior to that, the Cathay First experience had been largely uniform for over a decade, so it was definitely the right time for the airline to spruce up their offering a little.
Since the hard product has undergone minimal changes compared to when I first reviewed Cathay First in February 2018, this review will focus more on the new soft product (food, drinks, and service) as well as anything that might’ve changed in terms of the hard product.
This flight was booked as the return leg of the famous Cathay First mistake fare departing Vietnam, which I had originally booked for US$980 round-trip between Hanoi and Vancouver, and then changed the return leg to depart out of New York JFK instead.
Outside of mistake fares, the best way to book Cathay First for yourself would be via Alaska Mileage Plan (starting at 70,000 miles) or Cathay Pacific Asia Miles (starting at 125,000, or perhaps fewer, miles).
After enjoying a nice dinner and a few drinks over at American Airlines Flagship First Dining, Jessy and I made our way across New York JFK’s Terminal 8 to the boarding gate a little while before priority boarding was called. That allowed us to be among the first passengers to board, the crew directing us to turn left in to the First Class cabin upon checking our boarding passes.
A total of five out of six First Class seats would be occupied on tonight’s flight. The cabin consists of only six seats arranged in a 1-1-1 configuration, with the two seats on the port windows getting the left-side aisle all to themselves, while the remaining four seats share the right-side aisle.
Seats 1A and 2A are therefore the ideal seat choice on Cathay First – either one will do if you’re travelling alone, whereas a couple would have the aisle all to themselves if they selected both seats. On this flight, however, Seats 1A and 2A were already occupied by the time we selected seats, so Jessy and I ended up in Seats 1D and 1K – a middle seat and a starboard window seat, respectively.
Upon entering the cabin, the first thing I noticed was a brand-new design element compared to my previous flights with Cathay First: a gorgeous dark red throw pillow perched upon every seat, providing a welcome pop of colour against the neutral cream and grey tones and woodgrain accents of the rest of the cabin.
As always, the First Class cabin crew members, Kelvin and Misako, greeted our arrival very enthusiastically. Misako, the more junior flight attendant, offered to hang up our coats, stow our carry-on luggage (either underneath the seat ottoman or within each seat’s private locker, due to the absence of overhead storage bins), and show us around the First Class suite.
Since Jessy and I were already pretty familiar with all of the seat features, we politely declined the full tour, and Misako took it in stride and said she’d go fetch our welcome drinks instead.
(For a rundown of the seat in full detail, you can refer back to my review of Cathay Pacific First Class from 2018.)
I briefly looked around the seat and said hi to some of my favourite elements. First, the ottoman at the end of the seat, which has a seat belt available to dine face-to-face with your companion…
…the large wooden surface space, which is always appreciated for placing my snacks and drinks when the tray table is withdrawn, or for simply keeping my loose items within arms’ reach during the flight…
…and the in-flight entertainment screen, which is the only part of the hard product that has undergone a recent change. Instead of being attached to an “arm” that extends in front of you from its holder on the side, the entertainment screen is now more lightweight, sliding out into your field of vision in a smooth horizontal motion.
It seems that Cathay Pacific made this slight adjustment to their First Class seats at some point over the last few years, addressing what was previously a slightly clunky feature (and one that was particularly susceptible to damage).
Soon after I took my seat, it was time for the first flourish of the new soft product: a pre-departure amenity tray of sanitizing wipes, sparkling jasmine tea from JING Tea, and a welcome card. The sparkling tea is in addition to any other pre-departure drink you request (in our case, champagne), and was light and delicious.
Meanwhile, the handwritten card from the crew was previously delivered as part of the meal service, but is now handed out prior to departure instead. I can’t think of any other airline that offers a handwritten note on departure, so kudos to Cathay Pacific fo a thoughtful and personalized touch (well, except for the fact that they seemed to write “Zheng” instead).
Of course, these were all accompanied by the greatest pre-departure amenity to rule them all: a glass of Piper-Heidsieck Rare Brut Champagne 2002, served in a gorgeous tapered flute alongside some toasty mixed nuts. And after slamming one of these down (#slammertime, anyone?), I was pleased to see that the refill was very quick to arrive.
The purser, Kelvin, also swung by shortly after I had taken my seat, introducing himself and welcoming us to the flight. He spent a few minutes explaining that while free wifi would be available on this plane, it would be unavailable for a large portion of the flight given that we’d be flying the polar route over the Arctic Circle.
That wasn’t an issue for us; given our late-night departure, we were planning on sleeping as soon as we took off, and then having our multi-course dinner after that, so there’d be plenty to keep us occupied even without wifi.
More amenities were yet to come, and with them, more demonstrations of the new soft product.
First up was the amenity kit, which is now produced by Bamford instead of Aesop. The male and female kits were both beautifully designed, taking the form of a two-tone colour palette on a hefty leather package.
Both kits contained an eye mask, a dental kit, and earplugs, and Bamford’s lip balm and moisturizer. The male amenity kit added a spray-on face mist as well, whereas the female kit added skin tonic and face cream. Jessy and I both agreed that this was one of the better amenity kits we had received over the years.
Then came the pajamas, which are crafted by renowned Hong Kong shirtmaker Pye Shirts. They came in a striking shade of redcurrant, which is easily my favourite colour, and I thought they would nicely complement my set of dark green Cathay First pajamas, from their previous design, back at home.
Finally, we were given a few minutes to peruse the First Class menu. Previously, Cathay Pacific offered First Class customers a printed menu attached to a distinctive wooden board, but now that’s been replaced by a square-shaped paper menu instead, which was arguably even more elegant in its design.
The menu read as follows:
Misako came by to take our meal preferences just as takeoff was imminent. We indicated that we’d prefer to sleep for the first half of the flight and have dinner afterwards, and requested a blend of items from the Western and Chinese menus.
(I heard a few of the other passengers saying that they’d like to eat immediately after takeoff, which boded well for our meal service since it meant that the crew would have a lighter workload when taking care of us.)
As we took off into the night sky, I played around with the entertainment screen in front of me, noticing that Cathay Pacific had also recently revamped their in-flight entertainment software in addition to the hardware improvements.
The new touch-screen is a lot more high-definition and responsive with a refreshed user interface, representing a major improvement from the previous system in every way. The small touch-panel by your fingertips has similarly been upgraded as well.
I flicked through some of the movies and TV shows to look for anything I might want to watch later on during the flight.
Then, as soon as we reached cruising altitude, I headed to the restroom to freshen up and get ready for bed. Along the way, I asked Misako if I could possibly have a cup of green tea to sip on as I tucked in for the evening, and she assured me it’d be ready when I returned.
The First Class restrooms were kept in pristine condition throughout the flight. There’s a fold-out bench for changing into your pajamas, as well as additional Bamford amenities for your convenience.
Sure enough, after brushing my teeth and changing into my pajamas, I returned to the seat to find it fully made-up into a comfortable bed, along with a pot of green tea brewing on the bedside.
Even more impressive was the little spray-bottle of Bamford pillow mist that had been left on my meticulously folded bedsheets, allowing me to surround myself with a faint botanic scent as I drifted off to sleep. After taking a few First Class flights in my days, it’s not every time that an airline brings something completely new to the table, so this was a very pleasant surprise and I gave the bottle a fair few spritzes before settling in under the covers.
The refreshed Cathay First soft product also includes new bedding from Bamford, which is supposed to be a 600-thread-count mattress and duvet. On this flight, the bedding was crisp and comfortable for sure; combined with the exceedingly wide First Class seat that gives you ample room to move around, and I knew I was in for a very comfortable night’s sleep as I slowly dozed off.
New York to Hong Kong is a very long flight indeed, and this westbound journey was blocked at a staggering 15 hours and 50 minutes in duration. I had every intention not to oversleep, so that I could fully indulge in the First Class experience as usual, and so I had asked the crew to gently wake me up after seven hours of rest.
They were happy to oblige, of course, but go figure that I would then snooze for another hour or so, waking up after eight hours of sleep, with just under seven hours of the flight left to go. I think this was the first time I had ever gotten my “full eight hours” of sleep on an airplane!
By then, we had completed the polar route already, and were flying over Siberia on the way down to Hong Kong.
Time was of the essence in terms of maximizing every element of this First Class experience, so naturally…
…I booted up the entertainment system and started playing the Angry Birds game. I suppose it was only fitting to try my hand at a game with flying birds while on a flying bird myself.
Since I was feeling quite hungry already and Jessy was still fast asleep, I decided to order a bowl of noodles with braised pork from the all-day snack menu first. On most First Class flights with Asian airlines, I’d enjoy a bowl of noodles as a snack towards the end of the flight, but it seemed appropriate to start off with noodles on this occasion.
Ultimately, I do still prefer the ramen and udon dishes on Japanese airlines, but these Hong Kong-style noodles were very appetizing as well. They weren’t very salty to begin with, but that was easily addressed with a dollop of the XO sauce.
I also ordered a cappuccino to wake me up a little bit more and help me focus on annihilating those pesky green pigs.
About an hour after I woke up, Jessy did as well, having enjoyed a very restful nine hours of sleep.
Compared to my determination to stay awake and maximize everything about a First Class flight, Jessy usually isn’t all that bothered, and is happy to sleep for as long as she wants even if it means missing out on some parts of the overall “experience”. To each, their own.
One key part of the Cathay First experience that neither of us wanted to miss out on, however, was breaking bread together at 40,000 feet. Many First Class airlines out there allow you to dine face-to-face with a companion, but if you ask me, I’ll always associate this particular act with Cathay Pacific First Class in my mind.
Maybe that’s because of the sheer sense of theatre with which Cathay Pacific pulls it off: first, they wheel out the heavy-set table extension that latches onto the tray table…
…before spreading out a large tablecloth to set the stage for your meal.
It’s a bit of a cliché by now, of course, but the First Class dinner simply had to begin with caviar and champagne.
Cathay Pacific serves up King’s Imperial fresh caviar, accompanied by a mother of pearl spoon (so as not to chemically alter the taste of the caviar pearls), blinis, chopped egg whites and yolks, crème fraîche with chives, and salt and pepper.
Take note of the absolutely stunning tableware: a series of plates, large and small, designed to elevate every course of the meal, alongside an elegant set of metal salt and pepper trays on a sturdy wooden block.
This was certainly some of the most refined tableware I’ve ever encountered on any First Class flight, and in all honesty even felt a little excessive, but that’s what First Class is all about, after all.
Between a few clinks of our spoons against the caviar dish and a few more clinks of our champagne glasses, Jessy and I polished off the first course of the meal very enthusiastically indeed.
Following the caviar service, Jessy and I decided to order the “Chinese favourites” for our main dishes. This consisted of cold-poached shrimp in chilli sauce, Cantonese-style pork bone soup, and braised free-range chicken, accompanied with steamed rice.
The cold dish, essentially an Eastern interpretation of the shrimp cocktail, was easily my favourite, as it was fresh and flavourful. As before, I was also quite impressed by the fine china plate in which it was served.
The soup and the chicken, however, were a little too light for our tastes – perhaps a predictable complaint, considering that Jessy and I are both more accustomed to the stronger flavours of northern Chinese styles of cuisine, and tend to find Cantonese cooking somewhat bland in comparison.
I was happy to have tried the Chinese meal service on this flight, but the next time I’m on Cathay First, I’ll be determined to try the grilled steak that I’ve heard many good things about too.
Of course, the meal didn’t end there. Next up was the cheese plate, which I shared with Jessy while sipping on a cup of Earl Grey tea. We did our best to finish every bite of the cheese, although we didn’t quite finish the big slice of bread on the side.
Instead, we tried to leave some room for the dessert: a chunky chocolate pecan & walnut pie, as well as the ever-irresistible Häagen-Dazs ice cream. This was another highlight of the meal, as the warm, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate pie contrasted nicely with the ice cream I was eating on the side, even if the two desserts weren’t necessarily meant to be eaten in one sitting.
That deluge of calories would mark the end of the meal service. Overall, the presentation of the meal received top marks – easily among the most exquisite meal presentations I’ve seen laid out before my eyes – whereas the taste fell flat in certain areas but was still executed to a very high level.
In terms of the service, Misako was friendly and charming whenever we interacted, often stopping by to top-up our champagne or water glasses well before they were empty.
However, the delivery of the meal courses themselves was noticeably slower than usual, even when taking into account the fact that one tends to lose track of time when wining and dining on an airplane – there were a few times that we found ourselves wondering when our plates would be cleared and the next course delivered.
That’s a small trifle in the grand scheme of things, and there was always more Piper-Heidsieck Rare 2002 to sip on in the meantime, but it was something worth noting.
Following the meal, our plane had reconnected to the wifi satellites by this point, so I connected to the wifi to work for a while.
Cathay Pacific is a relative newcomer to onboard wifi, as the airline is still in the process of equipping their Boeing 777s (which form the backbone of their long-haul fleet) with in-flight connectivity. Thankfully, this plane did offer wifi, and moreover the airline recently introduced free wifi for First Class passengers as well, so all we had to do was enter our name and seat number, and we were online.
I continued ordering a couple of beverages as I worked over the next few hours. Sampling the beverage menu is one of my favourite ways to pass the time when flying in premium cabins, and Cathay Pacific had plenty to choose from. I decided to try a Hong Kong-style milk tea, one of my favourites, as well as a banana, raspberry, and coconut smoothie from the breakfast menu, both of which did a fine job of nourishing me as the flight went by.
Eventually, with just over an hour of the flight left to go, I figured I should try a few items from the breakfast menu. I wasn’t necessarily hungry, and Jessy had made what was probably the sensible choice of skipping breakfast altogether, but I had been very impressed by this flight so far and wanted to see it all the way through.
I began with a superfood coconut chia pot, which is one of Cathay Pacific’s new wellness-oriented menu items. These lighter alternatives to the usual onboard dishes are geared towards health-conscious travellers, and in my case, as a big fan of coconut in general, I enjoyed every bite of the superfood bowl.
After that, I had the seafood congee with dim sum selection. Again, the presentation, which reminded me of a high-end dim sum establishment, was more impressive than the quality of the food itself. While the savoury flavours of the dim sum were there, the overall texture was too dry – perhaps a side-effect of the natural challenge in preparing dim sum on a plane.
Across both meals, I would’ve expected from Cathay Pacific a slightly better execution of their local Cantonese specialties than what I had gotten. Based on this flight on Cathay Pacific First Class, I’d say that unlike when flying with Japanese airlines who serve up a mean locally-inspired meal, most Western travellers are perhaps best-off ordering from the Western menu that better suits their palate instead.
As a redeeming quality, one local specialty that was consistently pulled off perfectly was the Hong Kong-style milk tea – and it was one final cup of this sweet-and-slightly-smoky goodness that left me in excellent spirits as the crew prepared the cabin for an early-morning landing into Hong Kong International Airport.
As Jessy and I disembarked from the Boeing 777 and headed for the temperature-scanning checkpoint and eventually The Wing First Class Lounge, I reflected on yet another very special crossing of the Pacific with Cathay Pacific First Class.
In my view, the airline made some sweeping improvements to their soft product at just the right moment in late 2019. For over a decade, Cathay First has always been known for its unerring consistency in the onboard offering, which has historically been one of its greatest strengths. However, in recent years the standards had seemed to slip a little from their original heights, as I had observed on my last flight in the summer of 2019.
Refreshing the soft product with new bedding, amenities, pajamas, tableware, and service flows (while also touching-up a few elements of the suite itself, like the hardware and software of the entertainment screen) allowed Cathay Pacific to give its First Class product a much-needed boost, restoring it to its rightful place among the world’s best premium products.
While some elements of the food and service on this flight weren’t quite as perfect as the first time I flew on Cathay First, I was more than convinced that the answer to the question I had posed last summer is a resounding no: Cathay Pacific First Class, you’ve still got your magic touch.